John Harold Savage


John Savage

At the start of the new school term at King Edward VI the boys were reluctant to let the summer slip by. There was the harvest to gather, and time for one final swim in the Avon before the boys returned to school in late September. By then the days were over, wrote Vera Brittain of ‘unruffled peace of mind’, and the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald was writing its weekly ‘War Jottings’, and noting that ‘a thick blanket of silence has spread over the entire theatre of war (that) encourages the belief that serious events are occurring.’ One Old Boy of the School was already in France and directly involved with the British Expeditionary Force.

JOHN HAROLD SAVAGE was born on October 4 1887 and lived with his mother, Mrs. Davis, at 24 Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon. Due to retail development, the house is no longer there. Admitted to KES as a choral scholar on a Guild Foundation and as a boarder in November 1897 aged 10, there are no surviving records or references to him in the School magazine The Stratfordian, although in an account of his funeral in 1914 the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald recorded that at school ‘his bright and genial disposition made him a favourite with all.’ In the Admission Register, there were other boys who entered as Choral Scholars at the same time as John, and written in the column headed Date of Removal is ‘Left’ against his name, and added to the name of a boy who arrived with John is the year 1902. A choral scholar received a scholarship, paid for by the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, the Rev. George Arbuthnot, providing an entirely free education in return for their singing at Holy Trinity Church. Whether John –as others did – withdrew from the church choir before he was fifteen or when his voice broke, and therefore lost his scholarship, we do not know. Some time after leaving King Edward VI School, John moved to Waterloo Road in Kings Heath, where he lived in a small late Victorian terraced house with his wife Grace Maud (nee Hewins) and their daughter Grace.

He became a conductor on the busy Moseley Road route of the Birmingham Corporation electric trams. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he was already in the reserves with the rank of Sergeant in the 1st Battalion, South Wales Borderers, which was a unit of the Regular Army stationed at Bordon in north-east Hampshire. As a part of 3 Brigade in 1 Division, it was quickly ready for action and crossed on August 13 from Southampton to Le Havre on the SS Gloucester Castle – a passenger vessel built in 1911, it was later sunk by a Japanese raider in 1942. As part of the British Expeditionary Force, and heavily overloaded with kit, they headed through ‘the wooded slopes and watered valleys’ towards the distant Germans who were still advancing through Belgium. By August 21, Savage was close to the Belgian border and could clearly hear the roar of the approaching guns of the German Second Army. The following day, at Maubeuge, the tidal wave of blue-grey German columns was streaming down from the north as part of the Schlieffen Plan.

Following reconnaissance reports that strong German forces were moving towards Mons, some sections of the BEF marched north to support the French army, whilst others, including 1st Battalion South Wales Borderers remained to set up the beginnings of a defensive line at Givry. Moving on to high ground at Villers leSec, they encountered German prisoners-of-war being hustled away from the action. Over to their left the battle of Monswas taking place and the 1st Battalion went to relieve the Welsh Regiment at Peissant. Appalled at what they found – the position was ‘horrible’, with no field of fire, and a front covered by woods, said to be full of Germans. Although they expected the worst, they had suffered no casualties when the orders came on August 24 for a general retirement in order to ‘lead the Germans on’.

During the long march back, they were startled by shots from all directions, and scattered for cover along the hedges believing they were under attack from a large number of Prussian lancers (Uhlans). Rumours spread quickly, and the troops grew disheartened and exhausted by the constant retreat, marching twenty-six miles in one particular day. ‘The country was covered with standing crops,’ reported a contemporary magazine, ‘which would have limited the field of fire of our troops had they entrenched there.’ Towards the end of August, with the French late summer becoming very hot, the Battalion crossed the River Aisne as the Royal Engineers blew up the bridges behind them. The Retreat from Mons ended for the South Wales Borderers on September 5 at Mouroux, only thirty-three miles from the centre of Paris. It was at this time that the German Kaiser issued the order to ‘exterminate the contemptible little army.’ To assist in a great counter-offensive, the South Wales Borderers moved towards Aix- la -Chappelle. Leading the advance guard at the head of the main body, they were aware of German aircraft actively scouting above them. Expecting to meet the German advance, they arrived at Aixla- Chappelle to find no sign of them and to learn that they had retired. The following day the British advance continued, with the cavalry ahead of them already in action on the Marne. Once again the South Wales Borderers found the Germans had retired with more French villages liberated.

The Anglo-French plan had been to surround three German corps, but again with no engagement rumours spread in the Battalion that the Germans were demoralised and already beaten. The British soldiers began to believe the thoughtexpressed by Ernest Raymond and echoed by many that the war would be over by Christmas.

Savage and the South Wales Borderers crossed the River Marne on an undefended bridge at Nogent. They continued north to bivouac at Le Thoulet on September 9. By this time, special packages from Smith and Spencer, tobacconists in Greenhill Street, were reaching soldiers in France: one pipe and pipe cleaner, one pouch, one packet of tobacco, one packet of cigarettes, neatly boxed ‘for our boys fighting for liberty for us.

Halted by bombardment at Priez, the battalion reached Villeneuvre on September 11 and by September 14 had advanced across the Aisne in spite of blown bridges and heavy bombardment. What followed was reported in the War Diary of the 1st Battalion South Wales Borderers. During ‘a ghastly twenty four hours’, the Battalion was fighting at the head of the Brigade amidst heavy shelling from 8:00am at Moulins. As they moved to high ground they were hit with shrapnel and rifle fire from Germans commanding the ridge, ‘bullets ricocheting from the trees.’ A mile away, British artillery opened up in support. Struggling up the valley under heavy fire – some from their own artillery – the Battalion secured a defensible position, and received orders ‘to hold at all costs.’ By the end of September 16, two officers and eighteen men had been killed, seventy-six wounded, and one hundred and twenty-two were missing. The War Diary describes a scene of ‘desolation and carnage,’ with constant sniping and shelling as the heavy rain began to fill the trenches.

John Savage was wounded in the knee during the withdrawal from the ridge on September 24, ‘during a desperate combat in which men actually fought with fists and one even used a table fork to defend himself’, wrote Jack Adams in The South Wales Borderers. Lying for hours in the drenching rain and the dark before being found and moved, John was taken thirty-two miles by lorry and a further sixty hours by train and boat before reaching England. The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald reported that ‘on the homeward journey Sergeant Savage and other wounded comrades received many gifts of tobacco and cigarettes from kindly disposed persons as they passed through the different stations.’ Taken to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham and operated on to remove the shrapnel on September 25, he was reported to be ‘going on very comfortably,’ but died of his wounds in the Bourn Brook Military Hospital on Wednesday October 7, the first of the King Edward VI boys.

04 - Lodge Hill Cemetery

Lodge Hill Cemetery, Birmingham

John Savage was buried with full military honours on Saturday October 10 atBirmingham Lodge Hill Cemetery. Drawn by men of the Royal Army Medical Corps, severalof a detachment of the 8th Royal WarwickshireRegiment Territorial Force and ex-tramway men the coffin, covered by the Union flag, was conveyed on a gun carriage that was followed by forty tramway men in uniform and forty ex-tramway men who had joined the 8th Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Following a service conducted by the vicar of St. Mary’s Church, Selly Oak, the ‘Last Post’ was sounded. The cemetery contains 498 First World War burials, most of them in a Commonwealth War Graves plot in Section B10. The names of those buried in the plot are inscribed on a Screen Wall. That evening, the Headmaster of King Edward VI School, the Rev. Cecil Knight, remembered John Savage during prayers in the Guild Chapel attached to the School, where John had worshipped each morning as a boarder.

John Savage is commemorated on the Stratford-upon-Avon War Memorial in the Garden of Remembrance, on the Memorial Screen and Reredos in Holy Trinity Church, and in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.